Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Perpetually Peachy Parfait Lover

The real versus the on-air Jack Benny. Newspaper columnists wrote on the topic for years. Here’s one from the Washington Post of May 1, 1953. It may be the only one that doesn’t mention his violin playing.

To me, the most interesting part of this story is near the bottom where he talks about repeating shows. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, he couldn’t do it because he wasn’t allowed to by the radio networks. Shows had to be live. Bing Crosby changed that in 1946 when he convinced ABC to allow him to record his variety half-hours. All the networks finally broke down and Benny was occasionally recorded his broadcasts starting in 1949. He had been re-using portions—sometimes very healthy portions—of old scripts; some of the routines invented by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin were heard again long after they stopped writing for the show. By the final radio season in 1954-55, a good percentage of the shows were reruns (Jack was hamstrung as he couldn’t use broadcasts before fall of 1952 as they included Phil Harris). In a way, it shows the writers were finding it tough figuring out new ways to gag the Benny characteristics as mentioned in the story below.

Just a Nice Guy
The Real Benny’s a Real Doll
By Sonia Stein

THE influenza bug that bit Jack Benny last Sunday must have had cast iron nerve. If ever there was a man who looked to be in the peach of condition (Californians seem to stay perpetually peach instead of pink) it was Benny. For a man who celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday for the twentieth time on Valentine’s Day, Benny cuts a fine figure.
This should come as a terrible blow to the fans of the 20-year-old radio character Jack Benny. They know him (Sunday nights at 7 on WTOP) as stingy, aging, bald, foolish, fat, vain and unloved. His gag-writers have created—with his enthusiastic approval—a querulous bachelor covering his baldspot with a toupee in a fruitless attempt to make his friends think he is 39. His acute parsimony leads him to cheat his employes, to take in laundry, to charge guests for refreshments and cigarettes, to wear seedy clothes and to drive around in a moribund Maxwell.
THIS character is so well planted in the American consciousness after Benny’s years as America’s top-rated radio comedian, that a hatcheck girl once flung a dollar tip back at him and begged, “Please, Mr. Benny, leave me some illusions!” If you feel as the hat check girl did, look the other way, because we must in conscience report that Jack is handsome, generous, well-loved, intelligent, happy to admit his 59 years, slim, modest, and the honest of a fine head of white hair which he tints steel grey for photographic reasons.
A quietly tailored man, Benny has, nonetheless, a look of the actor about him. He has a commanding “presence” even when he is silent. This looking-like-an-actor situation puts Benny in mind of a joke.
“When I first got on Broadway I wanted people to point at me and say, ‘There goes an actor!’ So I bought a flashy Broadway outfit that looking like sunset with buttons. Then, one night as I was leaving the theater I heard a stagehand remark, ‘There goes Benny. He always looks like an actor.’ For a moment I floated on air. Then I heard his companion reply, ‘Yep, Benny always looks like an actor—except when he’s on stage’.”
He does worry about his waistline and diets rather carefully the last two weeks before each of his TV shows (once a month Sunday nights at 7:30 on WTOP-TV). But even during his dieting period last month Jack relaxed his vigil. When a waiter set before him a creamy strawberry parfait at a press luncheon Jack looked sternly at it a moment and then dug in with the explanation that, “It’s not fattening if you don’t order it and I didn’t order it.”
THE conceited aspect of the fictional Benny seems to be practically nonexistent in real life. When Benny was here February 7 to entertain at the Radio Correspondents Association dinner, he had an appointment at the White House with President Eisenhower, whom he had met in Europe when he was touring Army bases to entertain the troops. Affairs of state necessitated moving the Benny appointment a couple of times. Instead of being hurt or angry, Jack was wreathed in smiles: “Say, that’s very complimentary to me I think. It would have been so much easier for them to just cancel the appointment than to move it, but they kept moving it to try and fit me in,” he said.
On his program Jack not only plays straight man and butt of the jokes for every member of his cast, but works hard to build the others into rounded, popular characters. “People don’t say ‘I listened to Jack Benny last night and he was good,’ they say, ‘I listened to the Jack Benny Show last night and it was good’,” Jack explains. And he considers that smart business tactics. (It’s a little hard to quibble with him on business tactics, since he sold Amusement Enterprises, Inc.—the company under which his various activities are organized—to CBS for $2,260,000. As owner of 60 percent of the firm he got $1,356,000.)
Benny’s program is also the first one on which I ever heard any credits given to the writers.
MENTION of Benny’s writers always brings up the subject of whether or not Jack can be funny on his own. Not noted for ad lib ability on the air, Benny is frequently described as a gifted comedian who can judge humor well and deliver it perfectly, but who cannot write it at all. This certainly doesn’t appear to me to be the case. Although he does not keep up a steady line of gags and tends to discuss his work on a very serious level in terms of general approaches rather than specific jokes, he has a delightful wit which comes through when he is relaxed.
At a recent conference with the press, Benny was discussing the virtues of repeating some of the good shows after a suitable time lapse. “You can repeat the good ones and skip the bad ones,” he said. Then, leaping to his feet as if he had been insulted, he demanded to know, “Who has bad shows?”
Benny has never been accused of off-color humor except by isolated persons who found some item offensive. His good taste in humor goes unchallenged. Ronald Colman, long shy of radio because of a few unpleasant encounters, finally entrusted himself to Benny because he trusted Jack’s sense of good taste. After several successful appearances with Benny, Colman and his wife became stars on their own show. Dennis Day and Phil Harris also blossomed out with shows of their own after learning some tricks at Benny’s knee.


  1. It's interesting to note that in the 1954-55 season -- when Jack went to twice-weekly TV shows -- there are six writers credited on the broadcasts, as opposed to the four given credit the year before and the year after, when the radio program ended (with Al Gordon and Hal Goldman coming on in '54 and Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry leaving in '55). It seemed to be a bit of an acknowledgement that turning out that much product and keeping it fresh was a chore, and when Jack's show went weekly in 1960, he brought back former writers Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder to fill out the schedule with scripts for some of the live and filmed shows.

    1. I think it was Josefsberg who mentioned in an interview that Goldman and Gordon worked on the radio show in 1954-55, freshening old scripts by the other four in some cases, while the four worked on TV.